I recently read George Philips’ Oilpressure blog where he championed the value of the IndyCar series crown. The value of the championship to drivers, teams and many sponsors is high he stated, which I wholly agree with. The issue however is it’s value to the wider US public. The core of the problem – irrespective of what IndyCar’s latest management team do or do not do during this off-season – is that IndyCar has an inherent problem. It existed well before the CART/IRL split and continues to this day: it’s showpiece race is bigger than the series overall. For decades, and even more acutely since 1996, the series title in the minds of non-core fans and the US media is of secondary (or little) interest to who wins the 500.
Recently I wrote about the pressing issues the series faces in the short to medium term in my Fontana review. What struck me reading George’s piece is that almost all those issues are under-pinned by that same ‘series title versus Indy 500’ problem.
Whether it is the question of finishing before or after Labor Day, going up against NASCAR or NFL or not, going international or staying domestic, all the questions stem from the one on going problem: keeping audiences engaged beyond the month of May. Various things have been attempted but I wondered if only a really radical change could even come close to resolving it.
It’s a very simple concept but radical and very hard to pull off: run the season from September and finish at the Indy 500. Yes, finish the season at Indy!
A radical approach
When you strip it down – admittedly in the comfort of a blog – there are so many opportunities. Finish the season on the biggest weekend of the year, when the series has it’s single biggest race attendance and it’s largest TV audience of the season. Overcome the latent ambivalence towards the championship by making it coincide directly with the showpiece event that has perennially overshadowed it. Crown both the Indy 500 champ and the series champion on the same day and in practice give the series victor almost equal billing. Take advantage of the natural mainstream media coverage that accompanies the Indy 500 pre-and post-race to get the championship winner and series maximum coverage. (Consider if Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power were doing the media rounds post-Indy instead of each, individually, lining up for Letterman and nothing much else?)
It removes IndyCar from going toe-to-toe with NASCAR and opens up an opportunity for fans to be keenly interested in both. This drive from management to end the season earlier each year means a six month off season for 2014/15 within which NASCAR will run its Chase, crown its champion and start a new season, F1 will close out a titanic battle and NFL will come and go. Is it really inconceivable that fans of NFL, MLB, NBA and NASCAR could also be IndyCar fans?
Being proactive versus doing nothing
Admittedly going up against the NFL season is the polar opposite of what Mark Miles and his team are doing right now for fear of falling even further off the radar. Surely there are other ways to tackle that problem than simply packing up and hiding until after Superbowl Sunday.
Run more Friday-Saturday race weekends to avoid Sunday clashes; run races in South America during the northern hemisphere winter months and take advantage of the growing interest and better weather; run races in the southern states during the February – April period and capitalise on the football season ending. Give the drivers and teams a mid-season break around Christmas and then a decent but not overly long off-season between June and August. Heck, it might even attract more drivers from other series to have a spin during their own off-season.
A pipe-dream concept
Yes it is radical. Yes it would take a monumental amount of planning and willingness on the part of IndyCar, teams, promoters, circuits and fans but what is the alternative? Continue to shy away from the established US sports? Compress the season further and give NASCAR free-reign from September to November and then February – March? Make the championship title increasingly irrelevant and of little interest to mainstream US media – and in doing so further focus attention on one race each year? In effect, the current approach will only at best achieve moderate gains or simply keep things ticking over.
Whether IndyCar’s current management could pull something like this off is completely unknown. Asking whether they would have the stomach for it in the first place puts it firmly in ‘pipe-dream’ territory. But it could be absolutely awesome …